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And the Malachai would be no more.
“You want me to do what? What part of stupid crawled up your sphincter and died?”
Angry and offended, Nick folded his arms over his chest as he faced Caleb in his run-down condo. While it was just the two of them in here, he’d had enough of the demon’s attitude for one day.
What was wrong with him? Ever since Nick had been attacked in school, Caleb had been different toward him. It felt like the demon hated the very air he breathed.
Nick wasn’t the one with a problem. Caleb was.
“We need to know what we’re dealing with, Caleb. Otherwise, I wouldn’t ask you to do this.”
Caleb snarled at him. “What you’re dealing with is one seriously pissed-off demon who keeps wondering why he’s sticking his neck out for an idiot like you. I’m tired, Nick. Did you not get that from our earlier discussion?”
“I thought that was a fight we had.”
“No, this is hell,” he sneered, “and I’m trapped in it. And I’m sick of you. You hear me? Why don’t you fight your own battles? You want information, get off your lazy butt and go get it.”
Wishing he had the strength to lay into him and not get eviscerated, Nick gaped at his so-called protector, who had suddenly become a bad cross between a heckler and an abusive parent. “And you think something has crawled up my—”
“Get away from him, Nick.”
Nick’s eyes widened as Caleb manifested next to …
The two of them stood side by side in front of his makeshift bedroom. Same height. Same hair. Same eyes. Same black clothes and curled lips. The only difference was that the newcomer seemed to be in pain.
And bleeding at the corner of his mouth.
Ah yeah, this was just like that moment in Terminator 2 when the evil chrome cyborg takes over the body of the nice security guard.
Except the real Caleb wasn’t usually all that warm and fluffy either. Something that made them even harder to tell apart.
“Which of you’s real?” Nick asked.
“The one limping, silly.” Simi flashed in beside Nick and leaned against his shoulder. “Can’t you tell the difference between the cute Malphas and the fugly fake one?”
Not really. If Caleb wasn’t limping and bleeding, he’d have no clue.
Nick frowned at her. “What’s going on?”
With her bright purple hair, which matched the color of her lipstick, pulled into pigtails, Simi let out an adorable sound that defied description. “Them nasty demons done found you. Kind of. See, there’s a big bounty on your head—” She brushed her hand over his hair to emphasize her words. “—and if some mean nasty can find you and bring you in to have your brains eaten by their overlord, they get freed. So win–win. Well, not for you ’cause it would probably hurt to have your brains eaten. Though the Simi is pretty sure they’d kill you first.” She paused to think about that with a strangely cute expression. “Then again, some don’t, ’cause they like the sound of screams on the way down. I wonder if brains scream on their own.… Hmm. The Simi sees an expulsion coming on. Not ex…”
“That’s the word.” Smiling, she touched him on the tip of his nose. “Experiment. Thank you, akri-Nicky. Good of you to use your brains while you still have some. The Simi’s so proud for you.”
“You’re not helping my panic, Simi.”
“Oh.” She grinned at him. “Sorry. The Simi will be silent. Until it’s not time to be silent anymore. Silent. I likes that word. Ever notice some words are just pretty to say?” She beamed like a beautiful doll. “Silent Simi.” Her face fell as she touched her forefinger to her lower lip and pouted. “Oh, wait, no. The Simi don’t like the way that sounds at all. Blah! A silent Simi is not a good thing.”
“Sim?” Caleb grunted. “A hand, please?” Good Caleb was trapped in a headlock by the other Caleb.
Nick started forward.
Good Caleb threw his hand out and stopped him. “Don’t get hurt.”
“I feel like a yo-yo.”
“Better than what I feel like, buddy. Trust me.”
The bad Caleb withdrew from the good one the moment Simi entered the fray. He started for the door, but Simi tossed her hand out and wrapped what appeared to be a sticky rope around him. She reeled him to her like a fisherman ready for some swordfish steak.
“Oh, no,” Simi said. “We can’t have that. Where you going, Mr. Meanie-Pants? You don’t hurt people then run. That’s just rude.” She looked back at Caleb. “Can the Simi barbecue him, or is he on the ‘No Simi’ eat list?”
Caleb looked at the demon coldly. “Bon appétit, babe.”
This time when Simi smiled, Nick saw that her teeth were serrated and sharp. With a cry of delight, she vanished with the demon in tow.
Nick blinked several times as he tried to digest everything that was happening. “Simi’s a demon.”
Simi was a demon. He kept repeating that in his head.
Well, that certainly explained a whole lot of her weirdness away. But still …
Nick was aghast. “For the record, do I know anyone not a demon or a freak?”
“Yes, you do. Not sure if Bubba and Mark go into the latter or not, though. I’m too tired to mentally categorize them. You figure it out, and I’ll go with your Dewey decimal.” Caleb collapsed on the sofa with a loud groan. “Are you all right?”
“Maybe, but my mom will kill you if she sees that blood on her couch.”
Caleb looked down at the big stain that was spreading across the cushion where he lay. “I’ll clean it before I go. I just need to lie here for a minute. You have no idea how much pain I’m in. And—” He narrowed his gaze on Nick. “—who told you?”
Um, that was random. “Told me what?”
“About your destiny.”
Was he serious? “Dude. You did.”
Caleb cursed, then winced. “It wasn’t me, Nick. That stupid Fringer grabbed me and tossed me into Lataya.”
Nick had no idea what he was talking about. “Who is that?”
“Not a person. It’s a place. Think of it like a dungeon for demons where your powers get zapped.”
A chill went over him as he realized that he’d been spending time with his enemies and he’d had no clue about it.
Yeah, that was terrifying and sobering.
“So when was the last time I spoke to you?”
Caleb licked the blood from his lips. “When I pulled you out of the locker and unwrapped you.”
“Which really sucked, just so you know. You’re the one who deserved to be tossed…” Nick changed his tone as he saw the deep gashes in Caleb’s body. Wounds he’d taken for him. That put everything in perspective and made him feel both bad and grateful. “Okay, so you didn’t deserve that, but still … I don’t like being tossed inside lockers. For future reference, okay?”
Nervous over everything that had happened, Nick paced around the couch. “So what’s going on with all of this?”
“This is what I was trying to tell you, kid. Fringe Hunters can take any form they want to. It’s what makes them so deadly. For that matter, one shouldn’t even be able to get into this condo, which is supposed to be protecting you from things like them and yet…” His eyes flashed to those freak show snake eyes. “Did you invite him in?”
“I thought I summoned you.”
He leaned back with a groan. “Nick … we have got to get your powers honed. Your perspicacity is not where it needs to be. I swear I’m going to tie Simi to you until your eyes are opened to others. She has the best of anyone I’ve ever met. No one gets anything over on her.”
He’d noticed that like Rémi and the rest of the bears, she hid in plain sight. “Where does she come from?”
“Her people are called Charonte, and they originated in Lemuria then moved to other places I can’t talk about with you.”
“I just can’t, Nick, okay? Now, please give me a second to lie here in silence and bleed.”
That was the least he could do, since he was the whole reason Caleb was hurt. “You want something to drink?”
“Human blood would be fabulous. But since I doubt you’re donating, let me suffer for a minute longer.”
Nick paced back and forth as he tried to understand just how scary his world was now.
“No, Nick,” Caleb whispered from behind him. “The world has always been scary. You’ve just been lucky enough to be shielded from it. It’s the saddest part of childhood, really. When that shimmery veil is ripped away by something horrible and you’re left with the unvarnished truth. When the world no longer becomes safe and you see the ugly side of it. You, like most humans, fear us demons. But we’re not the worst predators out there. You know what we are. It’s the ones who lure you in with kindness or who attack from the back. Those are monsters far worse than us. All this time, you thought you knew. We all do. But now you have seen.”
“And I can’t take that back.”
Caleb shook his head.
Nick paused to look at him. “Were you ever a child?”
“Very few creatures are lucky enough to be born adult. We all suffer through childhood and adolescence.”
“Did you enjoy yours?” Nick asked, wanting to know.
“Parts. But I grew up in a vastly different time and place. You can’t even begin to imagine it.”
No, he guessed he couldn’t.
Caleb’s eyes returned to their human appearance. “But there was one who was kind to me. Someone who wasn’t supposed to have kindness. What I know of it, I learned from him. You should be glad that you’ve met me after he did. I assure you the Shadow Me you dealt with earlier was far kinder than I would have been before.”
“But you don’t want to be my protector.”
“I never said that.”
“Your expressions do.”
Caleb laughed. “You haven’t mastered your lessons, boy. You’re misreading impatience. I have that with all creatures. I want my freedom. I make no bones about that. It’s what I’ve yearned for these countless centuries. But my freedom would be wasted if I allowed you to be swallowed by darkness.”
“You said prophecy couldn’t be fought.”
Caleb pushed himself up from the couch and cleaned the blood away with a swipe of his hand. “Since when do you pay attention in class? And especially Moby Dick?”
Nick shrugged. “Apparently I do. Who knew?” He sobered as he met Caleb’s sinister gaze and the horrible reality of his future sank in with steely hooks. “Do you think I can be saved?”
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. I’d be off building a really deep bunker.”
“What if you’re right, though. What if I can’t fight it?”
“That’s the wrong question, Nick. What if you can?”
It wasn’t many people who got inspirational speeches from demons. Nick counted himself lucky in that regard.
“C’mon, Nick,” he said to himself. “Concentrate.” He supposedly had all these untapped powers just waiting to be carefully unleashed. It was time he learned to use them.
Barely one hour ago, another fourteen-year-old had been found murdered only three blocks north of Sanctuary—same style with the peculiar emblem around his body.
His coach was planning on delivering all their souls up to his boss like the cherry on a special homemade chocolate sundae so that Devus could move on and repeat his offenses again and again.
Well, Nick Gautier was no cherry and he was no fool.
Honestly, he didn’t know what he was anymore, but he couldn’t stand by and let anyone else die or become a victim. Not if he could help it. It was time to fight, and fighting was the one thing he understood well.
“You can do this.” He clenched his fist tight around the cord and thought as hard as he could.
It was useless. Grim’s lessons were more aggravating than helpful. Frustrated, he started to lower his hand, only to feel a warm presence next to him. The room was bathed with a soft, glowing light that seemed to emanate the sensation of a mother’s love and acceptance. It was so comforting, he wanted to lose himself in it.
Kody appeared by his side with her feet tucked up under her. “You can do this, Nick.” She smiled at him, and his insides danced. Dog, if she wasn’t the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. She always looked so sweet and inviting.